Studying with Autism: An Interview with James Mullholland

By Nicholas Jones

James Mullholland, 22- Photograph by Nicholas Jones

We all dread waking up in the morning and heading to that 9am lecture; and no-one is particularly fond of seminars, coursework or exams. And yet for the most part, a high number of university students have an easy time of it! What a lot of people don’t consider is how other people, for a variety of reasons, can struggle with what comes naturally to most students.

I sat down with James Mullholland, 22, a first-year student studying Creative Writing, who is studying with autism. I myself was interested in learning more about studying with a disability, and James was keen to share his experiences and help raise awareness.

When asked about studying at GCSE and A-Level prior to coming to University, James stated that while he had a ‘lovely teaching-assistant’ who ‘took notes’ for him, he still struggled with exams. Whilst he struggled with ‘horrible’ exams, he says that it was ‘difficult, unpleasant but it was necessary’.

James started studying on the 25th September 2018. He commutes into Greenwich from Gravesend in Kent. He said, ‘I didn’t want to live in halls as I wanted to focus solely on my studies. I didn’t want to have to worry about paying bills and getting food in- I wanted my studies to be my number one priority’. James’ journey is ‘about 45 minutes on a good day’ but can ‘feel very claustrophobic during rush hour’.

‘Yeah I am really enjoying it’ is what James had to say about his course, ‘it can be a bit difficult at times and some lessons can drone on a bit, but for the most part I’m really enjoying it. My only regret is that a lot of my friends aren’t around during my break as they’re in another lesson, or my day has ended or they’re doing a job’.  

James doesn’t regret choosing to commute but says the only drawback is not being around in Greenwich to spend more time with friends. He said, ‘a lot of the time I’m on my own at lunch because most of my friends are doing other courses.’

I asked James if he felt as though he was at a disadvantage studying with autism at university. This is what he had to say,

‘Yes and no, which may sound a bit strange. Student services have been really helpful…like this really lovely lady, Lucy Smith, she introduced me to the organisations ‘INVATE’ and ‘Clarion’ which are organisations that specialise in helping those with disabilities and learning difficulties…honestly I don’t think I could’ve done a lot of this without Lucy Smith’s help so I really want her to get a lot of credit.’

He said further,

‘the university have been helpful as well. They’ve done a lot to help, they’ve contacted these organisations for me, but I’d say that, um, the university does need to raise a bit more awareness for people with autism. I think that the staff and lecturers here could benefit from lessons, like training and education, on what autism is- the different spectrums and as well as just spending some time with people with autism, and just getting to know them, what their needs are- they’re strengths, their drawbacks… universities want to raise awareness for people with different sexualities or religions, I do believe that universities need to do the same for people with learning difficulties’

James says that there are difficulties when studying with autism. For him personally, he says ‘I don’t like that a lot of the work is online- I kind of prefer worksheets.’

He says,

‘the problem is I cannot filter out information, it hits me like a tsunami. People who are non-autistic, their mind has a filter; it takes in the necessary information and gets rid of the stuff it doesn’t need- my mind doesn’t have that… I can try to focus on the lessons and I might notice something in the corner [and become distracted].’

I asked James if he could give some advice to those studying with autism, or those with autism who are looking to study but not taking that final step. He said there were two key pieces of advice,

‘[number one] Don’t be upset if you don’t make friends on the first day… I came to university expecting to make friends on the first day and was left absolutely depressed…I have made friends now of course. Don’t be nervous coming but remember you’re coming into a different environment’

‘[number two] Don’t be afraid to talk to student services. I was a bit nervous as well, but trust me they’re not going to judge you. If you explain that you have autism or Asperger’s or any other learning difficulty- it’s their job to understand you and to help you… Basically just don’t be afraid to ask for help.’

I hope this interview has helped raise awareness for those studying with a learning difficulty, and that it has helped people understand some of the struggles that are faced by those both inside and outside of university.

I can’t thank James enough for sharing his experiences and wish him all the best with his studies. Feel free to check out James’ short stories on Kindle here, (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_ebooks_1?ie=UTF8&text=J.T.+Mulholland&search-alias=digital-text&field-author=J.T.+Mulholland&sort=relevancerank).

If there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, or an issue that you think needs more awareness, let us know at thecrowsnestgre@gmail.com.

By Nicholas Jones

The Crow’s Nest is a Greenwich Students’ Union Student Media channel. The views expressed in this website do not necessarily reflect those of GSU, its trustees, employees, officers or the University of Greenwich.

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